Swift kicks to the groin. Sharp elbows to the back. Hand checks. Rib jabs. Oh, and don't forget those nasty horizontal head slashes and simultaneous belly slashes. All in a night's work for newlyweds Jim and Andi Johnson of Nokesville in a cramped and secluded Herndon office park.
"It's ugly ballet with props," Andi Johnson said. 'It' is something called stage combat. The props are swords, knives, daggers and a host of other modern and medieval stage weapons.
The Johnsons are two of the 25 "semi-active" members of a ragtag group of theatrical fighters-for-hire called, the Noble Blades. Founded in 1993 by Al Myska and Kevin Robertson, the Blades are the resident stage combat troupe of the Reston Community Players and the area's only professionally trained, community theater-based fight group.
Married in the fall, the Johnsons enjoy the Friday night "free play" in the Reston Community Players rehearsal hall in Herndon. "It's great for the marriage," Andi Johnson insisted, with a devilish smile. Andi Johnson was a theater major in college, but she failed the actor-combatant test 10 years ago and she put down her sword until a year ago. Her husband, whom she met through the Blades, has been fighting, and acting, on stage for seven years, ever since he answered an ad for the play, Robin Hood.
<b>FROM HAND-TO-HAND</b> combat to swashbuckling sword fights, the Noble Blades provide their expertise, free of charge, to local non-profit community theater companies. "We fill a niche," Robertson, an engineer by trade and a former military police officer, said during a break from a recent practice session. "We have several professional fighters and we all have day jobs so we work with those that can't afford the big guys."
Twice a week, members of the Blades gather in a tucked-away office complex to flex their muscles and fine tune their technique.
Robertson, who prefers hand-to-hand knife fighting ("random nastiness," as he calls it) creates a towering presence as he stands, legs astride, shiny sword in hand. "Honestly, it makes such a difference when the fighting is choreographed and realistic," Robertson said, laughing. "Not to name names, but there have been times where the only thing a reviewer liked about the performance was the fighting. That's unfortunate for the show, but it is good for us."
On occasion, the fighting has been so realistic that combat actors have been a little "heated" coming off stage. "We have been known to be a little too in the moment, every once in awhile," said Myska, a systems administrator for Verizon.
Robertson insisted that no matter the ferocity of the fight, the two acting combatants will almost always walk off stage and have a beer together. "Method acting with a sword is never a good thing," Robertson joked.
Like any artist, the Noble Blades are hard to please. "Our friends hate to go to the movies with us," Robertson said. "We spend the whole time critiquing the fight scenes."
The Musketeer? Trash. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Terrible. The Matrix? Enough with the body harness. For good old-fashioned sword fights, the Blades recommended the Princess Bride and Rob Roy.
<b>JUST DON'T CONFUSE</b> the Blades for those stunt men on television and in the movies. Typically, stage combat is performed in front of a live audience and the stage actors must perform their own fights for each and every performance. "It's another tool the actor uses," Robertson said.
Sometimes, a play will call for a specific sequence, as in the "Music Man," when a simple punch and slap is already written into the script. Other times, the Blades will have a little more room for to improvise. "The two favorite words in a script: they fight," Robertson said.
"We are not re-enactors," Robertson said.
"This isn't living history," Myska said.
"We are actors first," added Andi Johnson.
Whether they are performing in the Maryland Renaissance festival or dueling on stage, the Blades know it is not all fun and games. "Are we sore? Are we tired?" asked Robertson. "You bet."
Myska said he doesn't bounce back like he did when he was younger, but he still relishes the requisite bruises, cuts and scrapes that come with the stage combat territory. "As you get older, your body lets you know it," said Myska, who has separated both shoulders as a result of his passion. "That doesn't mean I am ready to hang it up anytime soon, however."
No matter how comfortable stage fighters get, it is important never to leave your guard down. "The day you stop being afraid, is the day you get hurt," Myska said. "If you do this long enough, you will get hurt."
"You would know," Robertson joked. "You hold the record."
Nodding in agreement, Robertson insisted that "respect" — respect of the craft, respect of the instruments and respect of the danger — is a tremendously important for the actors' safety. "You have to acknowledge your limitations."
And just because the swords, daggers and rapiers are "not edged and not pointed" doesn't diminish the chances of injury. "Jim managed to stab himself," his wife laughed. "He stabbed himself because he got comfortable. You have to respect the craft."